Travel Features

Top 10 Western Museums of 2012

Best Western history and art exhibits of 2011


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We salute those who think outside that glass display case.

Remember back in those golden days when your folks would force you inside that same old mothball-smelling museum every summer vacation? Really, how many times can you see that Colt .45 that once belonged to Billy the Kid that was given to Sitting Bull by Wild Bill Hickok?

Thank goodness for today’s curators, who believe not only in provenance but also in making history relevant. Exhibits are constantly changing, giving the best museums fresh, inventive takes on history.

1. Southern Ute Cultural Center & Museum (Ignacio, CO)

Your first glimpse of the majesty that awaits you starts with the beauty of this parcel of southern Colorado—8½ acres of water features, gardens and hiking trails. You marvel at the design of the 52,000-square-foot building, an architectural wonder designed by Johnpaul Jones. But once you step inside, you will be truly blown away. The museum opened last year after a wait of more than 20 years of designing, planning and construction, and it’s something to behold.

The Welcome Gallery is designed as a massive wickiup, while the permanent gallery vividly explores the history of the Southern Utes. It’s kid-friendly, but both adults and youths will be amazed and educated. Follow that with a wonderful temporary gallery—the first exhibit featured restored and unrestored Indian Motorcycles—and a library and archives, and you’ll come away with a tremendous respect for the Southern Utes of yesterday, today and tomorrow.

Museums, of course, are usually thought of as visual—seeing artifacts, reading about them—but the Southern Ute Cultural Center & Museum also houses a Mac lab of oral records, available for students and researchers seeking to further educate us all about a people known for their horse prowess.


2. Houston Museum of Natural Science (Houston, TX)

Yes, you’ll find the usual displays of dinosaurs and science, but this gem never forgets history. Last year, “Texas! The Exhibition,” celebrated the 175th anniversary of Texas independence. You bet Davy Crockett, Stephen F. Austin and Jim Bowie were on hand, but so were La Salle, farmers and cowboys. An exhibit this big required help, so the museum partnered with other Texas museums, including the San Jacinto Museum of History and the Dallas Historical Society, but the biggest tip of the Stetson should go to guest curator J.P. Bryan, whose Torch Collection is fabulous.

Egyptian mummies might be the biggest draw for the museum, but it isn’t finished with history. “Discovering the Civil War” opened last year, and “Titanic: The Artifact Exhibition” debuted this year.

3. National Cowgirl Museum and Hall of Fame (Fort Worth, TX)

Former Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O’Connor was inducted into the Hall of Fame in 2002. Last year, she got her own exhibit, “The Cowgirl Who Became a Justice: Sandra Day O’Connor: A 30th Anniversary Celebration.” Before that masterpiece, the museum paid tribute to clothing and tack (we’re talking rhinestone chaps and 40-pound dresses in “No Glitz, No Glory” and vintage aprons in “Apron Chronicles: A Patchwork of American Recollections”).

This is an educational museum in more ways than one. During the 2010-11 school year, the museum taught more than 17,000 students from nine states and two foreign countries—more than any other museum or organization in Texas —via 28 distance learning programs.

4. Buffalo Bill Museum & Grave (Golden, CO)

Director Steve Friesen always keeps this museum vibrant. Last year, the museum received its “largest and most valuable donation since its founding,” which included more than 750 Buffalo Bill dime novels, 30 Wild West show programs, more than 100 Wild West postcards and 25 rare books about the West. In fact, you can check out the exhibit “Buffalo Bill Superhero” until January 20. Another important acquisition was an album containing 100 behind-the-scenes Wild West show photographs.

That dime novel donation, by the way, included the first two issues of Ned Buntline’s serialized “Buffalo Bill: The King of Border Men” for the New York Weekly. As Friesen says, “To the best of my knowledge, we are one of only three institutions to have all 12 issues of the story and the only museum that has the first two issues (with Buffalo Bill on one cover and Wild Bill Hickok on the other) on exhibit.”


5. Jewish History Museum (Tucson, AZ)

From Sephardic settlers of the 1700s, to later pioneers and all the way to the post-WWII new West, the lectures at the Jewish Storytelling Festival covered this often-overlooked but important piece of Western history. Besides, the annual Ketubah (Wedding) exhibit’s cool too.

But the museum has an even bigger project: scanning, archiving and putting online its collection of more than 10,000 artifacts. One discovery: The 1887 newspaper article by a New York reporter—disguised as a tourist—who didn’t have much nice to say about Tucson, but did say that Arizona should never become a state.

6. Panhandle-Plains Historical Museum (Canyon, TX)

Last year’s exhibits included tracing rodeo on the Southern Plains from its ranch roots to today’s professional action to “Frocks & Togs: Children’s Clothing from 1900 through the 1950s.” This year, the favorite exhibit “Pioneer Town” opens after a remodeling job.

The sprawling facility includes a research center and art shows, but the new Pioneer Town should lift this museum even higher, detailing life from 1890 to 1910. “Everyday life was the same, but how we accomplish daily tasks—with technology and tools—are different today,” project manager Becky Livingston says. “I would like our visitors to leave knowing that life at the turn of the 20th century wasn’t much different than life today.”

7. Mark Twain Boyhood Home and Museum (Hannibal, MO)

Fans of Roughing It, The Adventures of Tom Sawyer and The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn will love this museum, and so will anyone interested in America’s greatest literary icon and Old West newspaper hack.

The CD project Mark Twain: Words & Music attracted plenty of talent—Clint Eastwood, Garrison Keillor, Sheryl Crow, Emmylou Harris and Jimmy Buffett, who released the CD on his record label.

Historic preservationist Bob Yapp oversaw the exterior restoration of the Becky Thatcher House and the restoration of the Van Swearingen House. The latter was a special project that taught restoration skills to Hannibal High School students in the historic preservation trades class. When completed, the house will be sold, with any profit going to both the museum and school program.

But did you know that the museum’s archive includes the Hannibal roster of the Cadets of Temperance? Fans of Tom Sawyer might recall that Tom joined the Cadets, mainly so he could wear a red sash and march in parades.

8. Tamastslikt Cultural Institute (Pendleton, OR)

The cultural museum always has something unique going on. Last year, the photographic exhibit “Cowgirls: Contemporary Portraits of the American West” depicted that unglamorous look at ranch life in the modern West. But Tamástslikt...

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